WVU Tech employee proves it’s never too late to graduate
Janie Smith has worked in higher education for more than 20 years. And, this past May, she completed one of her life goals: to graduate college with her bachelor’s degree.
Smith grew up in Oak Hill, West Virginia as the daughter of a coal miner and is a first-generation student. After graduating high school, she wasn’t ready for college, but a professor at ABC encouraged her to take one class.
“I took my first class in 1996. I started at ABC and had no idea how to go to school, write a paper or read a syllabus. I learned all that along the way. One of the professors kept saying I needed to take one of his classes, but I said, ‘I can’t.’ I didn’t do well in high school. I wasn’t college material. But he said, ‘Just take one.’ After that, I realized there was so much that I wanted to learn,” she recalls.
In 2014, while working at NRCTC, she completed a Board of Governor’s Associate of Applied Science degree, a program designed for nontraditional adult learners. Her parents were able to see her graduate.
Two years later when she began working at Tech, the goal to complete her education was still on her mind, but her parents needed some assistance, so she didn’t feel like she could start obtaining her bachelor’s right away.
“I didn’t start until 2019,” she explains.
Smith was friends with the Regents Bachelor of Arts (RBA) coordinator at Tech at the time and finally got the courage to ask her what she needed to do to complete her degree. She found out she needed 17 classes.
“I said ‘There’s no way that I can do that.’ I was thinking if I take two classes a year, it will take me eight years.”
“Nancy [The RBA coordinator] gave me some really good advice. She said just take one. Just take one class and see how you do. I had been out of it for a while and I really doubted that I could do it. You think, ‘I don’t know, I have a family.’ That semester, I took one class. I thought, ‘I can do this.’ I took two classes a semester and was able to manage that. I did homework on my lunch hour and even took classes during the summer so it wouldn’t take me forever to finish,” she says.
The RBA program is designed for working adults, getting credit for work experience you already have and combining it with courses that build out your degree.
She graduated with her RBA with a minor in health services administration.
“I worked in a clinic years ago and loved it. I loved healthcare. The first class I took was about health insurance. I took something I knew would interest me and that I knew a little bit about. There are a lot of people out there who don’t know that they might only need a few classes to finish their degree, even if they took classes years ago and then went into the workforce. It is daunting when you look at how many classes you need, you doubt your ability. But just taking one class was excellent advice,” she remarks.
Smith said that she didn’t complete her degree for anyone but herself. It was the culmination of a lifelong goal that finally became a reality.
“More than anything, it was a life goal,” she said. “It was just something I hadn’t accomplished. I didn’t do it for anyone else. It was just for me. By accomplishing this, it’s changed me and how I view myself. To complete it, and to complete it with honors was a wonderful sense of accomplishment. It feels good to be done, to turn the page and start a new chapter. I had the support of my husband, my son, good friends and my family that cheered me on, who encouraged me not to quit,” she says.
Since Smith was working at Tech while completing her degree, she was eligible for a tuition waiver to help offset some of the costs of the program.
“WVU invested in my education. I appreciate that I was able to get a tuition waiver to complete my education,” she says.
After finishing all the requirements for her degree, Smith said she wasn’t planning on walking at the commencement ceremony, but her sister encouraged her to do it.
“Our father passed away two years ago, and [my sister] said we need to celebrate life. As a family, you need things to celebrate. After I did it, I was glad I did.
“It was fun to graduate,” she said. “When I walked in with my cap and gown, I was overcome with gratitude and a sense of accomplishment. It’s been a good journey. There's such a big world out there and so many things to know, so much knowledge to have. As you get older, I think you appreciate that a little bit more.”
Smith is currently the program coordinator for TRIO Student Support Services, a federally funded program that provides services for students to help them stay in college, graduate and develop skills for post-graduation.
“I love TRIO and what we do for the students, how we help them. It’s just a win-win. They get a good education, and students appreciate what we do. Free tutoring, free printing - that kind of pulls them in, but once they’re in we can encourage them and help them. We're a friendly face and a place they can come to.”
Soon after Smith finished her bachelor’s, people started asking her if she was going to keep going to get a master’s degree. She says she’s considering it.
“Maybe I’ll just do it one class at a time,” she said.